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Opportunity to grow or adding unnecessary stress - the key lies in our mindset and ability to find balance

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Opportunity to grow or adding unnecessary stress - the key lies in our mindset and ability to find balance

Scott Miker

If we need change in order to grow, why do we avoid change?  We all know that we need change and we need challenge in order to improve and grow.  But it isn’t as simple as just seeking constant change.

The reason change is often uncomfortable is because change tends to involve stress.  If we start changing major aspects of our lives we will start to feel an increase in our stress levels. 

But we need change in order to grow.  We need to be challenged mentally in order to grow our brainpower.  We need to be challenged physically in order to improve our physique.  We need to be challenged to learn and grow. 

This is a great paradox of life.  Within change lies the ability to learn, grow and improve.  Also within change lies an increase in stress, anxiety and discomfort. 

In Maximum Brainpower, authors Schlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway note this dichotomy.  “If an engaged brain is central to our long-term physical and mental vigor, and if that vigor comes from constantly engaging the brain with new stimuli, then the best kind of life must be one that is full of change.  Why do we not constantly seek change?  The answer is stress.  Just as the drag of an airplane increases with speed, stress increases with the amount of change in our lives.”

But stress isn’t a set amount for each activity.  It varies.  And we have an enormous amount of control over stress. 

When I was in eighth grade I played organized tackle football for the first time.  I was a huge football fan growing up and was incredibly excited about this opportunity.  But I had no idea if I would actually be any good. 

Because of this I set out, determined to prove I could play football.  I worked out harder than anyone on the team and made sure I finished all of the conditioning drills first.  I wasn’t the fastest but with increased effort during these strenuous drills I was able to outperform those who were faster.  I took this challenge head on and had a very successful season, even winning an award at the end of the year for my effort.  And my stress level was relatively low. 

But when I moved on to the high school I started to change my mindset.  I thought my success meant that I had a high natural ability to play football and could reduce the effort I put forth.  It wasn’t instant but rather a slow, degrading in my preparation and energy I put out.  This obviously led to poor performance and my football career fizzled out. 

But what was interesting was that this also led to my stress levels increasing and my happiness around playing football to significantly decrease.  In hindsight it makes complete sense.  I wasn’t putting in the effort, which resulted in struggle and failures, which then added to my unwillingness to keep working hard.  My mindset went from a motivated passion to do whatever I could to make it work to one of entitlement and laziness. 

This lesson, while painful, taught me something very important.  Our mindset and the approach we take to situations means more than anything else.  We have the ability to control our attitude and control the response we have to a situation. 

This is incredibly powerful, yet very basic. 

Right before I got married, my friends and I decided to go white-water rafting.  Most of us had never done this before but felt the adventure would be fun.  But I was surprised at how each person approached the situation differently.  Some were worried.  Some felt it would be easy and fun.  Some disregarded the risk and felt overconfident.  Some avoided going on the trip all together because of the risk. 

But the risk was there for everyone equally.  The possibility to enjoy the trip was the same.  The raft was the same.  Yet the experience was completely different for everyone. 

While riding the rapids, the crew on the boat I was on started to get a little cocky.  We felt this was a piece of cake.  We started to be overconfident and the risks seemed to be lower than we originally anticipated.  As we headed into a class 5 rapid we made a mistake and 5 of the 7 people on the boat fell out. 

In this situation, again, mindset made a difference.  Those who thought it was a piece of cake and there was no chance of us being in any trouble suddenly got a wake up call.  Those nervous from the start got confirmation at how dangerous this could be. 

After a slight panic in the water (and even after when we thought we lost someone) we all realized we were okay.  But the rest of the time on the water was completely different for us.  No more arrogant, cocky mindsets.  We all realized that there were risks and that something could actually go wrong. 

So for me the answer to the question about changing to improve but change also inducing stress comes down to our mindset.  It is on us how we respond to situations that really matters. 

Do we go into changing situations with a full understanding and acceptance of the risks and failures that could happen?  Do we block out the risks to feel more comfortable now but a shift in situation could completely change our stress level?  Or do we tackle it head on, accepting the risk and understanding that it is possible?  Do we come to grips with failure before we set out so that we are not dragged down by the thought of failure or when it inevitably happens?  Do we have basic contingencies to account for variations or obstacles?  

Therefore we need to find balance.  Too much change could mean stress eating at us, degrading our performance.  Not enough change means we won’t ever grow.  If we find a good balance then we can shift our attention to our attitude.  Our mindset and the way we respond to situations can now be focused on.  This will allow us to better manage the stress associated with change and reduce the negative impact stress has on us.    

We can now establish slow, systematic improvement in this area.  We can sense when entitlement starts to set in.  We can start to feel stress creep up but stop to think about it at a higher level before simply reacting.  We can start to improve our ability to dictate our response. 

If I better understood this when I was younger I could have changed the outcome of my football career.  I could have realized the damage I was causing by my attitude rather than focusing on why it wasn’t fair. 

If we better understood this on our white-water rafting trip we would have been less likely to let our cockiness cause us to make a mistake.  And we could have reduced the shock of being in the water struggling to make it to safety which would have made the rest of trip much more enjoyable. 

So balance change and make sure we keep our focus on our own mindset.  Don’t be rigid in your unwillingness go outside of your comfort zone but don’t be careless either.  That is the key to improving through change without adding unnecessary stress to our lives.